The third pandemic of plague (in its bubonic and pneumonic clinical forms) struck the globe between 1894 and 1959. As Yersinia pestis spread from country to country and from continent to continent, it left behind it not only a trail of death and devastation, but also a vast visual archive. It was the first time that plague would reach and establish itself in all inhabited continents. But it was also the first time that any epidemic would be photographed. As plague spread from harbour to harbour, and amongst cities, towns and villages, so did photographs of the pandemic through reproductions in the daily and illustrated press. Rather than forming a homogeneous or linear visual narrative, these photographic documents provided diverse perspectives on the pandemic, which, more often than not, were not simply different from region to region, but in fact conflicting within any single locus of infection. Moreover this photographic production came to establish a new field of vision, what we may call “epidemic photography” which continues to inform the way in which we see, depict and imagine epidemics and their social, economic, and political impact in the age of Global Health.
Plague arrived in Mazatlan, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, in October 1902. Fuelling Sinophopic outbreak narratives at the time, the plague’s origins were attributed to San Francisco’s Chinatown. The epidemic led to the quarantining of the port-city and the establishment of a military sanitary cordon around it. At the same time, hygienist perspectives blamed the city’s sanitary conditions and especially garbage fills and faulty sewage systems. Disinfection of toilets and burning down of infected houses was implemented with doctors like Martiniano Carvajal also promoting vaccination. Following fears concerning the infectious potential of human corpses, “hygienic burials” were implemented; a theme that spanned the third plague pandemic.